About 200 times each year, a Forest Park fire engine arrives at an emergency scene to find a situation much more urgent than had at first been expected. Perhaps someone is suffering from smoke inhalation, or maybe a victim has endured a severe asthma attack.

In these instances, firefighters do their best to keep the injured stable for those crucial couple of minutes before an ambulance arrives. In the past, firefighters in these situations have been limited by the equipment available to them ” basically first aid supplies and a defibrillator.

But over the past few weeks, the department has upgraded its fire engines to include ALS (Advanced Life Support) equipment, enhancing safety for both victims and firefighters.

“We have every drug the ambulance does, all the equipment the ambulance does and we can respond to any call the ambulance responds to” said Fire Department EMS (Emergency Medical Services) Coordinator Amy Strong. “This provides another level of service to the citizens of Forest Park.”

According to Fire Chief Steve Glinke, the department responds to about 2,700 calls per year, 1,800 of which are EMS calls.

The recent changes are the culmination of a decade-old effort first initiated by former fire chief Shayne Ryerson, who changed the department’s hiring requirements so that all newly hired firefighters would need to be licensed paramedics. In order to provide ALS, at least one licensed paramedic must be on board the fire engine at all times.

“It was controversial to say ‘you have to be a paramedic to get hired here,’ because it really limits the number of applicants we get,” said Glinke, who has been with the department since 1985 and has served as chief for nearly three years. “I think it’s important that Shayne gets credit for having the foresight to plan for this.”

By studying the department’s staffing patterns in 2005 and considering a number of possible worst-case scenarios, Glinke determined that with 11 firefighters licensed as paramedics, the department could now add ALS capabilities without the risk of having to pay excessive overtime to ensure that a paramedic be on hand at all times.

“When you talk about someone having a heart attack or a stroke or experiencing chest pain or severe respiratory distress because of emphysema, bronchitis, or asthma it literally is the difference between life and death…if we can get someone those medications a few minutes quicker that can make a huge quality of life difference,” said Glinke.

The $3,000 cost of renovating the department’s fire engines to carry the equipment, which included removing a seat and installing a shelving unit, was covered by the Foreign Fire Insurance Fund. Each fire department in Illinois receives a check from the fund each year, and fire department staff votes on how to spend it.

When the issue of using the funds to add ALS capabilities was brought up, the vote was unanimous. “We had the support of the administration and we had enthusiastic support of the membership here…anytime you get 21 yes votes, no questions asked, they deserve a tip of the hat,” said Glinke, noting that without the funding the project would have had to wait another year.

Though Forest Park will become the only village in the area besides Oak Park to provide ALS service on fire engines, Glinke said that residents need not worry that the engines will therefore spend more time responding to calls in surrounding villages.

“This absolutely will not change call volume, but it gives us a huge strategic advantage,” he said. “One of the things that is very important to the guys from a safety perspective is always having access to advance life support equipment on hand…if a firefighter is injured or we have a second victim. We now have a complete toolbox.”

Another advantage, Strong said, is the ability of the paramedics on the fire engines to have patients sign medical care refusals. “If people don’t need to go to the hospital, we can have them sign refusals and we don’t have to tie up an ambulance,” she said.

Future plans for the department, according to Glinke, include installing defibrillators in public buildings and schools throughout the village, an idea first proposed by Mayor Anthony Calderone. Glinke said he has already discussed the possibility with Forest Park

School District Superintendent Randy Tinder, who seemed enthused about the possibility.

“Our grand plan is to roll out a seminal service improvement every year. That’s not always an easy thing to do ” there’s planning, there’s funding, and we’re limited by the fact that we’re just one station. We know we’re not changing the world here, but if our job is to make medical care, fire and rescue the best that we can under these circumstances then we’re going to do it,” said Glinke.